An Inspiration to All

Story by Misti Hurst// Photos by William Snow
August 22 2018

There’s no reason to give up on your dreams when you have the desire to challenge yourself

In December 2014, Kris Bergthorson, an avid motorcyclist, was riding arenacross at the Red Barn Heritage Park in Chilliwack, B.C., when he lost control. He caught a jump slightly crooked, tried to recover, clipped another jump and crashed. “I went straight down on my head,” he says, “and popped my spine. Just like that, I broke my back.” From that moment on, he was paralyzed from the chest down.

Four years later, Bergthorson was back on a motorcycle and racing with the Pacific Coast Mini Roadracing Club (PCMRC) at Chilliwack’s Greg Moore Raceway (GMR) on an adapted Husqvarna. I was lucky enough to be there to watch the emotionally charged moment and to meet the inspiring man inside the helmet.

Kris Bergthorson Preparing to RideThe energy in the pits was positive and upbeat as racers and spectators gathered to watch Bergthorson being lifted out of his wheelchair and onto his supermotard, which was fitted with custom “landing gear” – like training wheels and a kickstand all in one. His feet were put into some creatively moulded PVC piping that held them in place on the foot pegs, and his legs were stuck to the bike with some attached Velcro on his pants and on the seat.

Because it was his first trial race, Bergthorson started from the hot pits, and after the flag dropped and the rest of the racers went by, he rolled out after them. He began slowly at first, making sure the landing gear retracted as he merged onto the track, and continued tentatively around the first few corners.

The other spectators and I were grinning in awe as we watched him gradually pick up the pace. I was standing right next to his girlfriend, Greetje Wilderjans, who was literally jumping up and down grinning and shouting, “He needed this so badly. I’m so excited for him! This is great. This is so great!”

As his pace picked up, Bergthorson smoothly rode around the track for several laps as his confidence grew. I could see how he was adapting his riding to work best with what his body was able to do. He looked one with the bike, and everyone could tell that he was riding happy. Even though I had yet to meet him, I was touched by his dedication and bravery – as was fellow racer Scott Borthwick, who was watching beside me. “I mean, wow,” he said. “It makes me think, would I be that strong? The amount of willpower that is flowing through his veins, it’s so impressive.”

Competitive Spirit

Kris Bergthorson's BikeAfter a few laps, another rider, Mike Inosay, crashed, and as Bergthorson passed him, he got back on his bike and rejoined the race. From the sidelines, we thought that Bergthorson might just move over and let Inosay pass, but as soon as he heard the bike behind him, he picked up the pace. We could see the change in his body. He stiffened up a little bit, put his head down and rolled on the gas harder. “He’s racing!” I said excitedly. “He’s in race mode again. He’s not letting Mike get by without a fight.”

The energy was building as we looked on, watching Bergthorson not only riding again, but actually racing. Half the spectators had tears of excitement in their eyes, myself included. As he passed the checkered flag, he gave a little wiggle of happiness and a small fist pump, and pulled into the hot pits, where several people had gathered to congratulate him and help him back into his chair.

Bergthorson was grinning from ear to ear, as was everyone else in the area. “It felt amazing to get out there,” he told everyone. “Emotional . . . pretty incredible, really. It’s hard to even explain after wanting to do this for so long and having motorcycles be such a huge part of my life before the accident.”

Searching for Options

Kris Bergthorson Racing on the TrackIt wasn’t easy for Bergthorson to make that dream a reality, either. Adapting his bike and getting ready for that moment was two years in the making. Initially, he had been looking into sit-skiing for paraplegics. “I’m a T4,” Bergthorson explains, “which means I’m paralyzed from the chest down, no abs, no core, no lower back, so I thought I’d just tip right over.” He wondered if T4s could sit-ski very well, and during his research came across a European champion in sit-skiing, Talan Skeels-Piggins, who just so happened to also have a motorcycle race team.

Bergthorson investigated further and found out that the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) was working with two organizations, the Handi Free Riders and Diversamente Disabili to support a motorcycle race series for disabled riders called the Bridgestone Handy Race. In 2018, the three-race series will be run at Le Mans, Mugello and Magny-Cours. “Some of these guys are wicked fast,” Bergthorson says. “They have all kinds of injuries – amputees, arms, legs, spinal cord injuries, all kinds of different things. When I saw that kind of stuff, I thought, okay, no excuses. I gotta do this. If they can do it, I can, too!”

He set about researching how to adapt his 2015 Husqvarna FC 250 motocrosser, which he chose because it’s a good all-around bike. With 44 hp, it would be fast enough, and the PCMRC and GMR allow up to 250 cc to race. Bergthorson also already had Alpina, tubeless supermoto wheels, and all the parts he would need would fit neatly on the bike. “Plus, it’s got an electric start, which is super-important for me! Kick-starting for me is a bit out,” he says, laughing.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

During Bergthorson’s research, he noted that most landing gear is big and heavy and fitted on the back of the bikes, but he wanted something smaller. When he couldn’t find what he wanted, he designed it himself.

Working in film and television as a designer, Bergthorson was already familiar with CAD (computer-aided design) and CNC (computer numerical control), so he did the drawings and a friend of his, Kevin Priebe, did the fabrication.

“[Kevin’s] a guy who is also in a wheelchair with a very similar injury to mine,” Bergthorson says. “He’s very bright and really skilled. He made his own wheelchair out of titanium, welded it and everything. So, I wanted this to be a project for people in wheelchairs. I drew it, he made it and we put it together.”
The electric shifter is a Pingel brand that has a little program that cuts the ignition for a millisecond: when you push the buttons for up and down, the solenoid just shifts a gear and instantly cuts out the ignition so that you don’t have to use the clutch. “I had to design and make the aluminum support for the shifter because it isn’t made for this bike,” Bergthorson says.

After some trial and error with the landing-gear motor and actuator, it’s now good and super-strong. Bergthorson put a Shorai 14-amp powersport battery in it, which is overkill, really. It’s small, light and expensive, but it keeps the landing gear going up and down. “You’re running the actuator for the landing gear and the shifter; they are both electric and it’s an electric-start motorcycle, so you want a good battery,” he explains.


While we stood around marvelling at Bergthorson’s bike and his courage to get out and race again, Scott Borthwick leaned over to me and said, “How many people actually have the drive to go through what he went through and then come here wanting to get back on the bike and race?”

Bergthorson’s racing experience that day nearly didn’t happen. First, some of the wires had come off the landing-gear switch, so it wouldn’t go up. That had to be fixed. Then, while out practising, his foot got caught under the shifter, so he needed help getting it unstuck. But when Bergthorson went back out, he didn’t hit the landing-gear button properly. He thought it was up, so he gassed it, but the landing-gear wheel caught and it chucked him into the fence and tore the switch right off.

“I was ready to throw in the towel and go home,” Bergthorson says. “It was kinda heartbreaking, really. I’ve been putting this together for two years and it’s a lot of money, a lot of effort, a lot of dreams, and I thought it was going to go up in smoke, but Mike Inosay helped me out with that. He was so amazing. He fixed it and saved the day.”

It was a culmination of a lot of hard work and determination on Bergthorson’s part and all the help and support from his girlfriend and friends. The members of the PCMRC were accommodating, helpful and supportive of his efforts to get back to doing what he once loved. For me and the other spectators to witness the emotional moment was extremely special. As photographer William Snow said, “You’re family. We’re all family here.”

“After my accident,” Bergthorson says, “I was just thinking, it’s such a huge part of my life, riding motorcycles is such a huge part of my life – to get that back today is pretty amazing. Thank you.”

“Are you going to do more of this?” I ask.

“Any time I can!” he replies with a grin. Bergthorson bought a family membership for GMR and plans on riding and racing as much as possible. His girlfriend is learning to ride so she can ride on the track with him.

All the best, Kris! You’re an inspiration.


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